Poland's new crowd pleaser

Every hour on the hour, high in the turreted tower of St. Mary's Church on Market Square, a bugler plays three dozen notes of a plaintive anthem known as the hejnal . And every hour on the hour, he stops at the 36th note, leaving listeners hanging.

This is Krakow's whimsical way of honoring a 13th century watchman silenced by a Tatar arrow as he called the town to arms. If you live in this lovely old city, perhaps you get used to waiting for something more to come. But for a visitor accustomed to things with beginnings, middles and ends, the hejnal is haunting.

As is Krakow. This city of 747,000, which dates to the 10th century, was the home of Poland's kings until about 1600. The new capital, Warsaw, was virtually leveled during World War II, but Krakow escaped destruction, most of its exquisite Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque art and architecture remaining miraculously intact.

Krakow's small, walkable Old Town, wide Market Square, Wawel Hill castle and Catholic churches by the score have long attracted visiting Poles. A decade ago director Steven Spielberg used Kazimierz, the city's Jewish quarter, for scenes from his Oscar-winning "Schindler's List." But only lately has Krakow begun to take its rightful place with Prague in the Czech Republic and Budapest in Hungary on the Old World, Eastern European cities tour.

Earlier this month, I skipped Prague and Budapest and went straight to Krakow, which is on the Vistula River about 100 miles north of Poland's southern border with Slovakia. I stayed in three Old Town hotels during my five days here, falling under the city's enchantments while puzzling over its idiosyncrasies.

I spent two nights in the modest but clean Hotel Rezydent on Grodzka Street, whose chief attraction is its proximity to Market Square. This broad, open plaza, laid out in the 13th century, is surrounded by medieval buildings with dignified Neoclassical facades.

Long, parapeted Cloth Hall, or Sukiennice, the cynosure of the square's center, has market stalls on the ground floor, where I bought an amber bracelet and a necklace, and a museum of Polish painting on the second. The collection's highlight is Jan Matejko's gigantic, stirring "Kosciuszko at Raciawice" (1888), which celebrates the Polish uprising of 1794, led by Tadeusz Kosciuszko. Russia crushed the rebellion and, together with Austria and Prussia, divvied up Poland, resulting in the country's obliteration for the next 123 years.

A sad story, like much of the history of Poland, which has long suffered from being wedged between the great powers of Russia and Germany. Still, from it rises Kosciuszko, who fought in the American Revolution before attempting to win independence for his homeland. In the small History Museum of Krakow, on the northwest corner of Market Square, an exhibition is devoted to him. It's labeled only in Polish, but I could easily read a letter under a glass case there, written in 1809 by Thomas Jefferson, addressing Kosciuszko as "My dear friend and general."

One cannot remain melancholy for long in Market Square, an ebullient, convivial place, blooming with flower stalls and fringed by sidewalk cafes where Krakovians and visitors gather to chat, people-watch or simply pass the time. Habited nuns scurry across the paving stones. Elderly gentlemen greet ladies with a kiss of the hand. Children use the statue of poet Adam Mickiewicz just east of Cloth Hall as a jungle gym. Strolling accordionists sound like church organists playing Bach fugues. On holidays, soldiers parade in caped and cockaded uniforms that look as if they haven't changed since World War I. (I was here on May 3, Polish Constitution Day.) And from the top of Town Hall Tower at the square's southwest corner you can see it all.

St. Mary's Church, with its soaring spires whence sounds the hejnal , is on the northeast corner of the square, receiving a steady stream of sightseers and worshipers from dawn to dusk through its huge doors. I couldn't pass by this Gothic brick beauty without wanting to stop in. I attended Mass and a choir concert there.

The church was built in the first part of the 13th century; its narrow, gracefully buttressed chancel took shape around 1360. Fine funerary monuments to town burghers were done by Italian artists in the 19th century. Inside, the walls are wrapped in deep blue and crimson murals by Polish painter Matejko. At the east end of the chancel, which is lined with stained glass windows, stands St. Mary's greatest treasure: a huge golden altarpiece completed in 1489 by German artist Veit Stoss (Wit Stosz in Polish), looted by the Nazis but reinstalled in 1957. Its figures are so lifelike you half expect them to climb down from the altar.

At Hotel Rezydent, a five-minute stroll from St. Mary's, my third-floor room had plain, functional furniture, a private bath, high ceilings, comfy duvets on the twin beds and two windows overlooking an air shaft. A breakfast buffet of cold cuts, cheese, breads, yogurt and cereal was included, but I liked to have my morning coffee at Dom Polonii, a pretty sidewalk cafe next door. Just beyond it I found the elegant restaurant Wentzl, where I had a delicious and surprising repast of creamy artichoke soup and trout stuffed with gingerbread at 4 o'clock one afternoon. (Poles eat their main meal between noon and 5 p.m.)

From the intimate and civilized Hotel Copernicus on winding Kanonicza Street, where I stayed two nights, I took in the southern sections of the Old Town. The hotel occupies a smashingly renovated 14th century brick building, with a central atrium, pocket bar and restaurant in the lobby, a minuscule lap pool in the cellar and spacious, handsomely outfitted chambers. My room was on the fourth floor and had two skylights, polished wood floors covered with Oriental area rugs, a solid walnut double bed and a fancy marble-lined bath.

From here, seeing the sights was as easy as climbing to the roof garden, which had expansive views of the gleaming white Baroque facade of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul and of Wawel Hill, crowned by Wawel Cathedral and the Royal Castle.

Down on Kanonicza Street I found points of interest too, such as the Stanislaw Wyspianski Museum, devoted to an indefatigably productive 19th century Polish artist and playwright, and the Archdiocesan Museum, with religious art and a typewriter used by Father Karol Wojtyla (who was to become Pope John Paul II) when he lived in the building from 1951 to 1963.

One morning, before the breakfast buffet at the Hotel Copernicus, I got a feel for the size of the Old Town by jogging around the Planty, a ribbon of a park that was once a moat encircling the historic center. During the run, which took a little more than 30 minutes, I passed clusters of purple and white lilacs beneath Wawel Hill; remnants of the town's old fortifications north of Market Square; and Jagiellonian University, still headquartered in the 15th century Collegium Maius building. The university was known as the Krakow Academy when Renaissance scientist and philosopher Nicholas Copernicus studied there, before positing his revolutionary theory that Earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa.

On a Sunday morning I stopped by several churches during Mass as a way to see the art and architecture of each as well as its clergy and people. I tried one after another, from the 13th century Dominican Church south of Market Square to the Baroque St. Anne's in the university quarter to the Romanesque St. Andrew's on Grodzka Street. Parishioners were streaming into each, attesting to the continued devotion of the Polish Catholic people, whose struggle for freedom from communism was partly emboldened in 1978 when Krakow's archbishop, Cardinal Wojtyla, became pope.

The high point of touring in the city's south section is Wawel Hill. Judging from the lines of youngsters I saw waiting for tours, it seems that every Polish schoolchild visits this place that was the seat of Polish kings from the mid 11th century to the end of the 16th. It is reached by a steep cobblestone lane near the south end of Kanonicza Street that leads past an equestrian statue of Kosciuszko doffing his hat. At the top is a neat and airy little park with a cafe where tourists drink Zywiec beer. The park is surrounded by the buildings of the cathedral and castle complex, in an amalgamation of architectural styles from Gothic to Baroque.

Wawel Cathedral's most beautiful sights include gold-domed Sigismund Chapel, an Italian Renaissance gem off the south aisle, and the calm white marble sepulcher of Queen Jadwiga, a medieval patroness of the Krakow Academy. The cathedral's tower is accessible by a dangerously narrow, uneven stone staircase.

The arched entrance to the castle lies just east of the cathedral, yielding to a large, arcaded Renaissance courtyard. I bought a ticket for a tour of the royal chambers on the second floor, mostly because I wanted to see the castle's intricate 16th century tapestries. My favorite depicted an anatomically incorrect leopard and lion locked in mortal combat.

The third hotel I stayed in was the Francuski, in a demure 1912 building with a sweeping central staircase on the north side of the Old Town. The service was strikingly polished (they gave me breakfast to go when I left for the airport early the next morning), and my high-ceilinged room on the third floor was at once fussy and luxurious in an Old World way, with its balcony and swagged drapes.

The hotel has a dignified first-floor dining room, where I had an omelet for lunch.

Across the street is the Czartoryski Museum, noteworthy for its portrait of a "Lady With an Ermine," done about 1485 by Leonardo da Vinci. I also was drawn to a delicately hued Persian carpet from the 17th century. The Nazis stole it in 1940, but it was found in 1991 in Christie's London auction house and returned, after much litigation, to the Czartoryski collection in 1997.

Despite its Old World charm, Krakow is inextricably linked to a sordid modern history: World War II and the atrocities committed by Nazis against (among others) the intelligentsia, Catholic clergy, gypsies, homosexuals and, of course, Jews.

Before World War II, about 50,000 Jews lived in Krakow; only 1,000 remained after the war. Now a little more than 100 Jews live here, worshipping in the last two active synagogues in the Kazimierz neighborhood, just south of the Old Town.

I devoted the last of my stay to the Nazi terror. Inevitably, this is part of the city's touristic terrain, partly because of the link to Oskar Schindler.

Krakow is where Schindler, a German industrialist and Nazi party member, found a way to save 1,200 Jewish workers at his factory from all but certain death in concentration camps. Shortly after Spielberg's movie about Schindler was released, a Jewish bookshop in Kazimierz called Jarden started offering "Schindler's List" walking tours.

Usually given in English (Americans outnumber everyone else, Jarden's proprietor told me), these begin at the Remuh Synagogue on Szeroka Street, built in 1553, when Krakow's Jewish community was the largest in Europe. I found the synagogue's dandelion-dappled cemetery, with a sacred wall made of pieces of Jewish tombstones despoiled by the Nazis, one of the most affecting sights in Krakow. From there my group's guide led us past a section of the ghetto wall in the Podgorze district and Schindler's factory across the river from Kazimierz. Along the way I learned that many Krakovian Jews worked and died at the Plaszow concentration camp, a little east of Kazimierz.

Another camp, established in 1940, lies 40 miles east of the city, near a town the Poles call Oswiecim. The rest of the world knows it as Auschwitz.

I took a bus from Krakow's main terminal just north of the Old Town to the State Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau, a 11/2-hour ride through the greening countryside. At the visitor center I saw a short film composed of footage taken when Russian troops liberated the camp on Jan. 27, 1945, and joined a three-hour tour in English of both Auschwitz and the nearby larger Auschwitz II, known as Birkenau. (The complex was made up of three main centers surrounded by 40 smaller satellite camps.) It's estimated that 1.5 million people died here, 90 percent of them Jews.

It was the little things at Auschwitz that made the Holocaust chillingly real for me: the sample of fabric made of human hair "harvested" from prisoners, a map showing that the camp's Jewish victims came from as far away as Norway, the root cellar smell of the gas chamber.

Auschwitz II, or Birkenau, is affecting in a different way, for its sheer size, with intact and ruined barracks stretching as far as the eye can see, like a Kansas wheat field.

After the tour, an English couple, a young American backpacker and I shared a cab back to Krakow and dined together on borscht and pirogi at Gospoda C.K. Dezerter, a sweet little Bracka Street restaurant. It felt good to be back in the sunlit world of the Old Town and to hear the hejnal , which sounded all the more bittersweet after my visit to Auschwitz.

I can almost hear it hanging in the air now.


GUIDEBOOK: CRACKING THE SECRETS OF KRAKOW

GETTING THERE

A taxi from Balice Airport to Old Town costs about $13.

Where to stay

Hotel Copernicus, Kanonicza 16, 31-002 Krakow; telephone 011-48-12-431-1044, fax 011-48-12-431-1140, Internet www.hotel.com.pl. It has 29 rooms in a 14th century building just below Wawel Hill; doubles $192 to $218.

Hotel Francuski, Pijarska 13, 31-015 Krakow; tel. 011-48-12-422-5122, fax 011-48-12-422-5270, www.orbis.pl. This is Old World-evocative, with 42 rooms; doubles are $161, including breakfast.

Hotel Rezydent, Grodzka 9, 31-006 Krakow; tel. 011-48-12-429-5410, fax 011-48-12-429-5576, www.rthotels.com.pl. Modest and clean; doubles $120, including breakfast.

If you want to stay right on Market Square, the Hotel Wentzl, Rynek Glowny 19, 31-008 Krakow; tel. 011-48-12-430-2664, fax 011-48-12-430-2665, www.wentzl.pl. It has 12 rooms, doubles $174.

To be in the heart of Kazimierz, the old Jewish Quarter, try the Hotel Eden, Ciemna 15, 31-057 Krakow; tel. 011-48-12-430-6565, fax 011-48-12-430-6767, www.hoteleden.pl. It has 27 rooms in a restored 15th century building; doubles $100, including breakfast.

WHERE TO EAT

Alef, Szeroka 17, local tel. 421-3870, in Kazimierz, and Gospoda C.K. Dezerter, Bracka 6, tel. 422-7931, just south of Market Square, are two comfortable mid-range eateries featuring Polish and some Jewish (non-kosher) cuisine, with entrees for $5 to $9.

Pod Amoren, Tomasza 7, tel. 222-2341, on the west side of Old Town, has real pizza; $2.50 for a small pizza Margherita (with cheese and tomato sauce).

Wentzl Restaurant, Rynek Glowny 19, tel. 429-5712, serves distinguished Polish and Continental cuisine on the second floor of the Hotel Wentzl and in the cafe on Market Square; entrees $9 to $13.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

In Krakow there is a tourist information center at Pawia 8, just west of the train station. Most newsstands and snack trucks sell "Karnet" (75 cents) and "Krakow in Your Pocket" ($1.30), two excellent tourist guides. The city has a Cultural Information Center at Jana 2, just north of Market Square, where information on cultural events and tickets are available.

Polish National Tourist Office, 275 Madison Ave., Suite 1711, New York, NY 10016; tel. (212) 338-9412, www.polandtour.org.

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